Strange Animals 10may17: An Entirely Predetermined Universe Without Free Will
Right Now Nothing Is Happening
Note: There’s no comics bit today. My comics-analytical mind is currently occupied with something I’m doing for a friend’s project, so I’m giving it a bit of a rest on the newsletter. Today’s edition is all about fiction, as filtered through a conversation across time between two people who are probably not acquainted.
Religion has been on my mind, recently.
When I turned atheist, the act of becoming was separate from coming to not believe in a deity. The latter was a thought that occurred, accreted and endured, the former a protective shell of an identity that needed to be sloughed off eventually. Back then, I wouldn’t have acknowledged that people have an instinct for religion and that this might need an outlet even if the outlet isn’t necessarily religion.
But over time, I’ve come to think that just like an instinct for money (or at least for a substrate of exchange) and society, there is an instinct for religion. This doesn’t, obviously, mean that I endorse organised religion or even that religion makes sense, but that the human animal needs to be part of something bigger in that peculiar abstracted sense which has developed into religion.
Since then, I’ve been shoring up interesting belief systems that I might want to reach for in weak moments which would still, on balance, be more acceptable to me than organised religion. I legitimately hope that there are atheists in foxholes and that I’ll be one of them, but I’d hate to not allow myself to change my mind.
I’ve been keeping tabs on Alan Moore’s strange religion-for-one from that point of view.* You can look for details elsewhere, but, from this latest interview, here’s a bit about how he thinks of the universe:
Obviously, as a storyteller the element of time and the narrative uses to which you can put it are tremendous fun, but I think if I’ve been drawn to telling stories like this – and I certainly appear to have been – then that would be because time itself is a subject that has fascinated me since my early childhood, when studying framed photographs of deceased forebears it came to me that at some point in the future, after I was dead, people would be examining photographs of me, and that from a certain perspective this was already happening.
As I’ve grown and have come to understand more about the position that I have learned is called Eternalism, then I’ve come to feel that it offers a vivid alternative to both ridiculously optimistic religious belief and an atheistic pessimism that is probably psychologically unworkable. I recently received a wonderful letter from someone who said that reading Jerusalem had helped resolve the terror of mortality that had dogged them since childhood, bringing with it debilitating anxiety and depression. This is all I ever wanted the book to achieve; the hope that it might offer a solidly rational new view of death that would provide an alternative to letting our life be morbidly overshadowed by our paralysed and fruitless fear of its end.
* I’m pretty sure El Sandifer wrote an essay about customising Moore’s ritual practices and wrapping them around William Blake’s pantheon to create a personal religion. It should be traceable somewhere on the Eruditorum Press website, but I’ll see if I can find it and post it in a follow-up.
And on the same subject, here’s Nick Cave from the recent film One More Time With Feeling:
I emailed a friend last night and I was mentioning how time felt elastic these days. And he emailed me back a very excited and lovely email – where he spoke about the idea that all things were happening all the time. All past, present and future are happening now – right now. That basically a caveman was clubbing a female mate at the same time that astronauts – or scientists – were trying to work out how to colonise Mars.
Now, that is encouraging, right? And I think he meant well, but it’s not true because … it’s not true because if everything was happening now, I wouldn’t be sitting here waiting for the film crew to work out how to work this ridiculous 3D black-and-white camera. Right now nothing is happening.
The repudiation is gentle but firmly dismissive. It’s the same sort of attitude I’ve had to the existence of God so far – well, it’s possible, I suppose, but it’s still an irrelevant concept.
But its relevance is, just like that of fiction, in the eye of the beholder. It’s relevant if it’s useful. And Cave himself gets at precisely that in the other interview I found myself fascinated by. To the self-proposed question ‘Do I believe in God?’, he says:
As a songwriter it is important for me to have a kind of belief system that can travel and change as I see fit. Orthodoxy and atheism seem to be like battery hens, stuck in the same cage, having the same old debate. Of course, my beliefs, such as they are, cannot bear up to much scrutiny and fall apart when challenged, but that is because the debate about the existence of God seems to rest on the concept of truth. As a songwriter, I am not much interested in truth, or at least truth takes a backseat to meaning and emotional resonance; meaning, not in the sense of rational meaning, but rather, meaningfulness or value. So, when I hear a song of praise sung to a God that on any empirical level probably doesn’t exist, I am somehow moved more, and filled with a deep respect for that human need for meaning that is so powerful, so desperate and so beautifully absurd.
On this, the two seem to concur. Asked about his worship of Glycon and his meetings with mythical beings including, possibly, the demon Asmodeus, Moore says:
When it comes to other conscious entities – in this current reality or any other – it is part of our condition that we can never know for sure that they are real in the sense we feel ourselves to be real. This is unfortunately true whether you’re talking to the demon Asmodeus, to a supposed Artificial Intelligence, to an LSD-provided hallucination of Yogi Bear, or to your mum.
In practical terms I personally find that the best test, whatever kind of entity we’re talking about, is to determine whether this entity is providing you with any real information, be that intellectual or emotional or, for want of a better word, spiritual. If it spouts nonsense that has no resonance or relationship with anything in your experience of reality, then it’s generally safe to regard such an entity as being in all practical terms unreal, even if it’s your mum or, say, an apparently existent President of the United States. If, on the other hand, its information seems to be coherent and has application to the world as you yourself perceive it, then it would seem only polite to interact with and address such an entity as if they were as real as you yourself, even if it’s an LSD-provided hallucination of Yogi Bear.
I think if we acknowledge that the world of matter and the world of mind are both equally ‘real’, albeit it completely different ways, then what we are left with are the above criteria. The question, rather than “is this entity real?” becomes instead “is this entity of either use or ornament?” In these terms, Glycon and all the people I met down at the homeless shelter last week are definitely real, while Boris Johnson and Barney the Dinosaur definitely aren’t.
The common thread here is that to both, the truth value of religion and belief is unimportant. It is useful as a lens through which to view things.
It is, in a literal way, a useful fiction, something that you pretend to take as literally true so you can then move on to talk about other things interesting.
And to Cave, at least, it’s an essential lens, considering he went through a religious phase that coincided with the height of his addicted phase. (Correlation isn’t causation, I know, but juxtaposition is a valid aesthetic choice nonetheless, on which this entire essay is predicated.)
I was fucking crazy. Towards the end, I was waking up cold turkey and going to church, sick as a fucking dog. I'm sitting there sweating and listening to everything, and then trotting down … and scoring and getting back home and shooting up and going, ‘I’m living a well-rounded existence.’
In Moore’s case, the idea of the useful fiction reflects itself in From Hell, wherein he considers a patently nonsense theory about the identity of Jack the Ripper to be utter truth, going out of his way to give it heft, and uses it to build a story about the horror of the British class system and the ugly birth of the 20th century.
In writing fiction, this is the balance you’re always struggling to strike. Everything you’re writing is false, but you would still like to lie honestly.* So that when you imbue a thing with meaning, you’re doing so responsibly. After all, there’s a power to narrative. The human animal is also fond of patterns, and storytellers are our primary pattern-creators in both quantity and influence.
* This and a couple of other thoughts to do with Alan Moore and From Hell are either inspired or borrowed from the discussion in Wrong With Authority’s episode on From Hell and Murder By Decree and I’d be remiss not to direct your attention to that excellent podcast.
At this point, it might be useful to add a third participant to our imagined conversation. If you needed proof of how language and storytelling can bridge time and space, this one’s dead, even.
Here’s Sir Terry Pratchett on our drive for narrative and meaning:
[…] humans seem to need to project a kind of interior decoration on to the universe, so that they spend much of the time in a world of their own making. We seem – at least at the moment – to need these things. Concepts like gods, truth and the soul appear to exist only in so far as humans consider them to do so … But they work some magic for us. They add narrativium to our culture. They bring pain, hope despair, and comfort. They wind up our elastic. Good or bad, they’ve made us into people.
[…] Narrativium is powerful stuff. We have always had a drive to paint stories on to the Universe. When humans first looked at the stars, which are great flaming suns an unimaginable distance away, they saw in amongst them giant bulls, dragons, and local heroes. This human trait doesn’t affect what the rules say – not much, anyway – but it does determine which rules we are willing to contemplate in the first place. Moreover, the rules of the universe have to be able to produce everything that we humans observe, which introduce a kind of narrative imperative into science, too. Humans think in stories …
* The intermittently interesting comedian Joe Rogan on cults vs. religion: “In a cult, there’s a guy at the top that knows it’s a scam. In a religion, that guy is dead.”
Some say why waste your time believing in God when there is so much natural beauty and awesomeness around us. Some say that there is more beauty and wonder looking at a butterfly and I agree, butterflies are beautiful things, but if you get a human being to look closely at a butterfly, to look very closely and get some more human beings to look at that butterfly so that there is a collective of people all peering intently at the butterfly they will ultimately fall to their knees and worship that butterfly. It’s the way humans are put together. I don’t think that makes them stupid. I think it’s kind of sweet. Until someone says well my butterfly is the true butterfly and yours is not and flies a plane into the twin towers.
And even in the personal arena, I wonder how useful it is to cling on to stories. As I return to writing stories of my own, rather than only helping people tell theirs, it becomes scary how stories escape and turn into things.
After the death of his son, Cave muses:
Yeah, things have been torn apart, and I’m desperately trying to find a way of making some kind of a narrative sense out of it, if we’re talking about songwriting, or at least some sense out of it […] I can reduce this chaotic mess that’s happened down into something that’s more … distill it down into a platitude that I can fit nicely … you know a kind of greeting-card-sized platitude that means something to me, like ‘he lives in my heart’ or something like that. People say it all the time to me, he lives in my heart, and I go, yeah yeah. But he doesn’t. I mean, he’s in my heart but he doesn’t live at all.
[…] Kind of … great trauma isn’t actually a good thing [for creativity]. You know we all wish we had something to write about – something in our lives that can happen, to write about and to make our lives interesting, that sort of stuff. But actually, trauma, I think, in that this happened, and the events that happened – it was extremely damaging to the creative process. The imagination needs room to move, it needs to room to invent, and to dream. And when a trauma happens that’s that big, there’s no room, there’s just no imaginative room around. There’s just the fucking trauma. And I think that was what the problem was when I tried to do new songs in the studio.
There’s a story I was trying to write about the loss of language. I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t have a lot to do with watching my father slowly lose words as his brain reduces from a worded state to an unworded one. And it’s a pretty stupid story, because I have no idea what I’m trying to tell myself with it apart from the fact that I feel sad about what’s happening (you can’t see the shape of the thing from inside it). There were many ways in which I’d thought about losing my father. This wasn’t one of them.
On Terence McKenna’s declaration of language being in superposition over the ‘real’ universe, Moore says:
[I]t is no more than the truth to point out that language separates us from the probably psychedelic pre-verbal reality that we enjoyed as infants. What is also true, of course, is that if the infant individual (or infant culture) does not acquire language, then they will find themselves at something of a disadvantage when it comes to surviving in the physical world: in short, they very probably won’t. What I’m saying is that the acquisition of language seems to involve a necessary trade off in terms of our direct experience of the world versus our ability to function in that world. This is our human situation, and the way to make the best of it is to utilise language to its fullest and most spectacular extent. No, it won’t reconnect us to the universe in the way that we were connected as infants – this is possibly what psychedelic drugs are for – but I would suggest we take a look at what medium Terence McKenna chose to beautifully express the loss of our speechless Eden before we come to personify language as some form of neurological tyrant.
But if you can’t see the shape of the thing from inside it, are you ever really in a position to be objective, ever? Are you ever outside your own life? How do we even understand whether an objective reality exists or not if we’re all looking from within our subjective selves?
All of this stuff that I’m saying now, it feels like it’s just a load of bullshit to me. It may mean something, but in the end, there’s something that happened, and there’s a kind of ring around that event – it’s fenced off – and everything else is okay around it, but there’s just something that happened in that short space of time that we can never get that far away from. … There was something – I was rattling on about time being elastic – I think that’s what I meant, that we’re attached to this event. That we move away like we’re on a rubberband, and life can go on and on and on. But eventually it keeps coming back to that thing. That’s some kind of trauma, I guess.
We consistently overlay meaning on our past retroactively to fit the present. The present is constantly eschatological in nature.
Looking back over the last twenty years, a certain clarity prevails. Amidst the madness and the mayhem, it would seem I have been banging on one particular drum. I see that my artistic life has centred around an attempt to articulate an almost palpable sense of loss which laid claim to my life. A great gaping hole was blasted out of my world by the unexpected death of my father. … The way I learned to fill this hole, this void, was to write. […] I always thought the traumatic incident was the death of my father, but actually I don’t think the traumatic experience had actually happened. It was waiting.
Even at the moment of declaring the falsity of the overriding narrative of his creative life, Nick reaches towards the sad, pretty sentiment of a different narrative – it wasn’t Nick the son to his father that was the character he was playing, it was Nick the father to his son that he was waiting to play:
My consciousness exists only at this given time. It has no past, and no future. But its present is bigger in magnitude than all the trillion stars and planets and galaxies.
After quoting from it heavily, it wouldn’t do to recommend anything else – One More Time With Feeling is one of the saddest cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. It’s a rather beautiful film, even if director Andrew Dominik does occasionally reach for images that don’t coalesce. I’d rather have that than lose some of the beautiful sequences here that succeeded because Dominik was ambitious and reached for something strange and liminal.
As an exploration of grief, it’s gorgeous in how it gives dignity to the grievers, lets them have a voice. Skeleton Tree is not my favourite Cave album, but it functions as a document, just as this film functions as a document. They’re both snapshots of a point in time, a point just after trauma. A point that can, handily, be revisited for meaning.
You can purchase One More Time With Feeling from the official website.
Fuck knows. I haven’t kept a single ‘Next Time’ promise so far. I have something in mind to do with creating sound effects. We. Shall. See.